Many workers at “world-changing” tech companies might as well work at Walmart

Technology companies need more than white-collar workers and servers to get their work done.
Technology companies need more than white-collar workers and servers to get their work done.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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“I’ve seen people pass out, hit the floor like a pancake, and smash their face open,” a worker at Tesla’s “factory of the future” told the Guardian in a report published this week. “They just send us to work around him while he’s still lying on the floor.”

The Guardian report described long hours and intense pressure to meet CEO Elon Musk’s production goals–even if that means enduring or ignoring injuries. Since 2014, according to the report, hundreds of ambulances have been called to the factory to treat workers.

This portrayal doesn’t quite jive with Musk’s world-changing vision. And Tesla isn’t only Silicon Valley company facing this type of irony.

Technology companies’ reputations as employers often stem from how they treat highly paid engineers, but many also employ thousands of blue collar workers. Tech workers at these companies receive high pay, elaborate perks, and progressive workplace policies, but blue collar workers for the same companies often work in circumstances that look much less innovative.

The tech industry’s non-tech workforce

At Facebook, a team of 7,000 human moderators police content by reviewing the worst that humanity has to offer. At Amazon, more than 90,000 full-time employees in 70 warehouses pick and pack orders for delivery (a workforce that more than doubles with temporary workers during busy seasons). Uber’s algorithms direct massive armies of human drivers, and Tesla employs about 10,000 workers in its car manufacturing plant in Fremont, California.

The humans who moderate content have jobs that involve watching violence and child pornography. They report psychological damage, including a condition similar to PTSD (two former Microsoft content moderators recently sued the company for not providing psychological support), and often are hired as contractors rather than employees.

A Buzzfeed News report last year found working conditions at Blue Apron, a tech company that makes meal kits, led to high stress and even violence as the company rushed to scale operations.

Horror stories occasionally emerge from Amazon warehouses, where workers walk up to 12 miles in a shift and must meet minimum productivity requirements. The company also runs a platform called Mechanical Turk on which workers complete small, repetitive tasks for cents, which has inspired a new category of ethical questions.

Uber drivers, who are not employees of the company, report misleading promises and unpredictable wages.

Technology companies should start at home

These are certainly not the worst jobs in the world. Amazon warehouse workers, for instance, have jobs not unlike those at more traditional logistics companies and at the warehouses of older retailers, like Walmart. According to thousands of salaries reported to the jobs site, Amazon’s warehouse workers make on average about $12 per hour, which differs based on location. Walmart recently said that it was raising its hourly pay floor to $10, and that its average workers make $10 (part-time) and $13 (full-time) per hour.

Outside of new technology companies, you’ll also find plenty of health and safety violations muchmuchmuch worse than those at Tesla factories and Blue Apron assembly plants, and tech is not alone in using contractors instead of employees wherever possible. Even Facebook content work, which involves spotting beheadings and child pornography, doesn’t seem so bad compared to global sweat shop conditions.

But unlike companies in most other industries, tech has positioned itself as a visionary, progressive driver of positive world change. Mark Zuckerberg recently released a manifesto describing how Facebook can improve everything from global safety to civic engagement. Elon Musk seems to have chosen his company ideas from a list of world problems, and a Jeff Bezos quote on an Amazon recruitment page professes that “success is measured against the possible, not the probable.” Why not take this big thinking to the problem of improving jobs for their own hourly workers?

Many technology companies have already applied their progressive thinking to their white collar jobs. Facebook has been a pioneer of family friendly policies, and Google has considered the health of its white collar workforce down to the size of their cafeteria plates.

Sure, these considerations are driven by competition for hiring and retaining software engineers, but there are also financial advantages to investing in blue collar workers. A recent study by researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Wisconsin, for instance, found that experienced workers at warehouses with the type of storage system Amazon uses were significantly faster than less-experienced workers. That may be one reason that Amazon has offered benefits such as on-site classrooms at its fulfillment centers that make it easier for workers to go back to school and paid leave that can be shared with a spouse or domestic partner in some circumstances.

When it comes to physical or labor-intensive work, Silicon Valley tends to tout its technology. Tesla has its automation-heavy “factory of the future,” Uber invests in automated vehicles, Facebook is building algorithms that can police its content without human moderators, and Amazon is building machines that pack boxes and drones that deliver them. These technologies have the potential to improve jobs. They could also result in fewer of them.

But for the foreseeable future, blue collar workers will have a role in powering even the most futuristic technology companies. Companies like GM and Walmart helped establish standard working conditions for workers in their respective industries, and the technology companies disrupting those industries today will help establish working conditions for the future.

Update: This article has been edited to include examples of benefits at Amazon warehouses.